On Saturday night in Hanover, the neon blue longhorn of Cancun Cantina blazed brightly over a parking lot packed with cars.
Pop country music spilled out into the otherwise quiet stretch of Old Telegraph Road as bouncers in neon yellow t-shirts and cloth gaitor face coverings checked IDs.
It was a Saturday night like any other, except it was a pandemic and the health department was on its way.
Inside the country western bar, cowboy booted line dancers pivoted and stomped at a respectable distance. Masked busing staff ferried plastic trays of pub fare from spaced out tables full of unmasked, but seated people.
But in the room over, a tented space with all flaps down, the scene appeared a little less compliant with Anne Arundel County’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Masks hung loosely around necks, exposing toothy smiles shining under black lights.
Smiles faded as health inspectors pushed through the door.
The Anne Arundel County Health Department went to Cancun Cantina in Hanover on Saturday night, saying it staged the surprise inspection to investigate tips that the bar hosted salsa nights, concerts and packed DJ events for weeks that health inspectors believed flouted protocols set to stop COVID-19 from killing more county residents.
The scene illustrated the tension between business owners trying to comply with restrictions while keeping their businesses afloat and health officers trying to enforce them.
Craig and Kristen Foster took ownership of the club in February 2020 but waited to open until late July to ensure they could comply with COVID-19 restrictions. They said the space can hold around 1,100 at its most packed but has been hovering around 300 people. They said they had the health department come in and show them how to space the tables and where floor markers should go.
As restrictions changed, the Fosters changed their club. They passed all but one inspection in October, even earning a reputation among local businesses as overly-compliant, they said.
“When we first started we were throwing out 10 to 20 people a night because no one wanted to wear the masks,” Craig Foster said. “Now it became a fixture.”
The Saturday inspection, which saw health inspectors enter the nightclub in search of violations, came after the restaurant previously broke pandemic restrictions this fall, as infections mounted heading into the holiday season.
Craig Foster said the October violation took place on a Thursday night, when one of their hostesses was sitting down at a table and thought she could take her mask off, since patrons are allowed to do so. They said there were roughly a dozen customers in the restaurant at the time of the citation.
Before chief liquor board inspector Wayne Harris made his way through the glass doors, he met with colleagues from the health department and police department in an empty parking lot outside a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.
Inspectors said they received a slew of complaints after the bar hosted the band Doc Martens and the Flannels on Feb. 20. The county Board of License Commissioners and the health department waited until Saturday because likely there wouldn’t be much activity on Monday night.
“You take the chance in booking the bigger bands,” Kristen Foster said. “You know, the expense is a little bit more, to try to fill the majority of the seats so that you can make the money for the rent.”
They’ve struggled, as their establishment has two main rooms, with keeping patrons at their tables and in their designated areas. When a good song comes on in one room, crowds tend to migrate and it becomes more difficult to enforce the rules.
“We just have to start policing people,” Craig Foster said. “‘Go back to your side,’ ‘Go back to your table.’”
While the Fosters were just getting their night started, Harris was waiting for the green light from two inspectors who had gone into the establishment about an hour before for observation. Health and liquor board inspectors have been the frontline enforcement officers during this pandemic, the ones telling weary restauranteurs to comply with everchanging COVID-19 restrictions.
The inspectors have received threats to their homes and families for doing their job.
Once the inspection started, patrons pooled at the door as inspectors wandered around inside.
A bouncer in a neon yellow t-shirt locked the glass doors to the outside with eager bar-goers inside while the inspection took place. A line quickly formed outside, curling around palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights.
One of a handful of patrons leaving warned those waiting: “They’re being crazy strict in there.”
Craig Foster, who identified himself as the bar owner, approached a reporter for The Capital, not knowing she was a reporter, and told her to grab a seat or a ledge to comply with health department restrictions.
Foodservice establishments in Anne Arundel County are currently allowed to operate at 50% capacity indoors. Outdoor dining is permitted as long as 50% of the tent sides remain up. As of Thursday, food services establishments are recommended but not required to use contact tracing methods.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman relaxed restrictions Thursday, bringing Anne Arundel into alignment with the most liberal permissions of Gov. Larry Hogan. The surprise inspection came as cases in the county have been on the decline, but Pittman and other county officials have cautioned residents to stay vigilant, wear masks, limit social gatherings and avoid high-risk contacts.
“The gentleman who manages the club was very cooperative with us,” said Harris, the liquor board inspector. “We did see some violations. Number wise it was quite a few, not in the quantity of violations but in the number of patrons.”
Harris said the nightclub was not over the 50% capacity rule, but inspectors spotted people standing and consuming alcohol at the bar, a violation in itself.
“The stools, every one, was occupied,” Harris said.
After the health department cited Cancun Cantina in late October for a violation of the county mask policy, online records show the situation was corrected and the case was closed.
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The restaurant is one of dozens of county businesses cited since the county ramped up enforcement in July. At least six businesses have been temporarily shut down for failure to comply with COVID-19 rules.
If inspectors had shown up at any other bar or nightclub on an unseasonably warm Saturday night at the almost-one year mark of the pandemic, it’s likely they would have encountered similar violations.
Facebook videos posted since Feb. 15 show the bar hosted salsa dancing nights, where masked couples twirled back-to-back while patrons sat at the bar and watched. Another video shows a concert on Feb. 20. As grunge band Doc Marten and the Flannels play, maskless concert-goers jump and mosh to the music, screaming the lyrics and bumping into one another.
After Harris and his team wrapped up the inspection handing Craig Foster a leaflet of citations, Foster manned the door, now locked, to keep any additional patrons out for the night.
Asked again and again by would-be customers, some hostile and some confused, when they’d be allowed inside, Foster calmly repeated, “We’re at capacity.”
One man, visibly drunk, stumbled past and Foster offered to pay for an Uber to get him home safely. He said people who frequent the club know each other, take care of each other: “This place is like, it’s like a church.”